5 September 2009
As I was leaving Paris last week, after a wonderful train and biking holiday around central France, a piercing and frightening sound of sirens interrupted my enjoyment of the sights of the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. As France commemorated the eve of the 70th anniversary of the 2nd World War, I was reminded of the rusty old Singer sewing machines that I had recently seen in the village of Oradour-sur-Glane.
Oradour had been a sleepy village in the Haute-Vienne region of central France that had come under the control of the French Vichy regime that collaborated with the Nazis. The region, with its dense forests, was also a hide-out for the French Resistance fighters who opposed the Vichy government and the Nazi occupation. After the D-Day landing of 1944 in Normandy the Nazis swept into central and Southern France, in an attempt to avoid further allied advances in France. As part of this advance a Waffen SS unit entered Oradour, and (using the excuse of one of its officers having been seized by the Resistance) rounded up 642 men, women and children. The Nazis separated the men and moved them to locations across the village before shooting them in cold blood. The women and children had been taken by the Germans to the village church. In a brutal act of barbarity the Nazis opened fire on these innocent women and children, sealed the church and set it alight, murdering all but one woman who managed to escape from a window.
Today Oradour remains as it was on that fateful day of 10th June 1944 preserved as a Martyr's Village in memory of those slaughtered. It touched the lives not just of those in the village but in the wider region. Staying in the small village of Blond, our elderly neighbour Lucille recounted her own memories of the Nazis in France. They had swept by the front of her house and executed some men and women at the junction, a few hundred yards from her home. Lucille has never been to Paris, certainly not abroad, but when the war was over she cycled to Oradour and saw for herself what war had visited upon the rural communities in France.
The Germans sought to cover up their atrocity by attempting to burn all the bodies and the village down to the ground. Visitors can see this for themselves today as they walk around the burnt out homes; the signs of the burning and gunshot holes still visible. As you walk past what was once the village bakery and butchery the ovens and tools can still be seen. In the houses Singer sewing machines lie rusting in burnt as a poignant reminder of the families that were wiped out.
The perpetrators of the atrocity were not really brought to justice for this war crime. In the 1950s French soldiers from Alsace, who had been forced to join the German army, were put on trial in Bordeaux for their part in the Oradour massacres, but their sentences were seen as lenient by the local community. And then even those sentences were remitted.
The pain of the loss was intensified because most of the bodies were unidentifiable and the victims could not be given a proper burial, thus allowing a grieving process for the wider community. As a result the local authorities insisted on preserving the destroyed village as it was to aid the healing process and to remind us all of the evils of war.
It's a fitting reminder of how wounds of injustice and war crimes cannot really heal unless they are given an appropriate place in our history and are recognised and commemorated in a way that enables people to feel the long arm of justice.